The exceptional circumstances of 2020 showed in consular assistance
In 2020, the Unit for Consular Assistance provided nearly twice as much guidance compared to the previous year. In the spring, during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, personal guidance and advice were given to tens of thousands of travellers stranded abroad. Thousands of travellers were assisted in returning to Finland after air traffic ground to a sudden halt.
According to the statistics for 2020, Finland’s missions provided services to approximately 176,000 customers, nearly double that of the previous year. The increased number of contacts was also felt at the Foreign Ministry’s on-call centre, which received over 12,000 calls or emails over the year, busiest being March and April. Similar to previous years, most of the services consisted of guidance provided to customers.
The Unit for Consular Assistance in the Foreign Ministry provided assistance in 509 cases of death that took place outside Finland. This number was slightly lower than in the past. Compared to previous years, there was also a decrease in the number of victims of crime (90), those in need of assistance in the event of illness (258) and arrested and detained Finns (176). As in previous years, the majority of consular cases were recorded in Spain, Germany, Estonia, Thailand and Sweden, which are the countries most frequently visited by Finns. In 2020, Finnish missions abroad issued 17,100 new passports and 2,844 identity cards.
“As concerns consular services, 2020 was a very exceptional year. The first repatriations due to the coronavirus outbreak took place in late January-early February from Wuhan, in China, and in March and April we offered guidance and assistance practically around the clock. Finnish missions around the world, as well as the Foreign Ministry’s 24/7 Service Centre and the Unit for Consular Assistance demonstrated their competence and capacity under the challenging and hectic conditions,” says Antti Putkonen, Director of the Unit for Consular Assistance.
In 2020, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs received travel notifications from nearly 138,000 travellers. The most common destinations were Spain, Thailand and the United States. The decrease in the number of notifications compared to previous years came from the drop in travel in the latter part of the year. Owing to the coronavirus crisis, many Finns abroad suddenly found themselves in a very exceptional situation. Compared to normal years, there was a huge surge in the volume of country-specific situation information and instructions distributed to travellers who had filed a travel notification, with 905 separate announcements being sent, basically by tens of thousands of SMS messages and emails. In addition, coronavirus-related announcements were published on social media and on the websites of Finland’s missions abroad.
“The Ministry for Foreign Affairs organised repatriation flights to help travellers stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the flights ultimately played a minor role in helping travellers return to Finland. All our consulates and embassies around the world worked hard to assist travellers, and statistics indicate that the efforts helped tens of thousands of Finns. We should also highlight the efforts of tour operators and other private operators that organised the return of their customers to Finland. The Unit for Consular Assistance was involved in all these efforts, ranging from international coordination to the assistance provided to individual travellers, which meant the year was very challenging for us,” says Putkonen.
Apart from the pandemic, a total of 115 other natural or human-made crises and exceptional situations around the world called for protective measures concerning Finnish travellers in 2020. Demanding and unusual emergency operations, such as the repatriation of Finnish children and their mothers from the al-Hol camp, were also carried out over the year.
The pandemic is not over, avoid non-essential travel
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs still recommends that everyone avoid non-essential travel. If you have to travel for essential purposes, act responsibly and follow the health-security recommendations and regulations issued by the authorities in the relevant country. The Foreign Ministry also recommends that travellers acquaint themselves with the Ministry’s travel advice published for 157 countries. The travel advice bulletins provide important information on travel safety in different countries.
Before each trip, travellers should also check local entry regulations and, during these exceptional times, any official restrictions related to the pandemic, which may change at very short notice. When returning to Finland from abroad, travellers must also pay attention to the self-isolation guidelines issued by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.
Before leaving Finland, travellers should submit a travel notification to inform the Foreign Ministry about their travel and travel details. It is the only way for the Foreign Ministry to obtain information about Finns travelling abroad. The travel notification service (Matkustusilmoitus.fi) is free of charge. In the event of a crisis or exceptional situation, relevant information and advice can be sent to travellers who have submitted a notification. A text message is sent to the contact person, whose details were provided in the travel notification.
“When foreign travel becomes possible again, it would be a good idea for everyone to create a travel routine – read the travel advice, submit a travel notification, get travel insurance and ensure that you have valid a travel document. Even if travel restrictions are sooner or later relaxed, exceptional conditions may continue in some countries. Therefore, travellers should also prepare for sudden and unexpected situations as well as for quickly changing official restrictions,” Putkonen adds.
People in distress abroad can contact the missions, the Ministry and also the Ministry’s 24/7 Service Centre (+358 9 160 55555, [email protected]). The Service Centre handles requests for urgent consular assistance received by Finland’s missions abroad outside their office hours. The primary duty of both the missions and the Service Centre is to provide advice and help customers to handle their own case.
Inquiries: Antti Putkonen, Director, Unit for Consular Assistance, tel. +358 295 350 126 or Henna Harju, Team Leader, tel. +358 295 351 056. The Foreign Ministry’s email addresses are in the format [email protected]